Net Effect

Iran’s Twitter Revolution won’t succeed because of US government

Recently I’ve been studying the Iranian new media space in order to understand its key players and how they all relate to each other. I had a hunch that Twitter isn’t one of them and so far my findings confirm it. But something else has recently caught my attention:  popular Iranian social news sites do ...

Recently I’ve been studying the Iranian new media space in order to understand its key players and how they all relate to each other. I had a hunch that Twitter isn’t one of them and so far my findings confirm it. But something else has recently caught my attention:  popular Iranian social news sites do not display Google Ads. This seemed strange to me, because many of them have high traffic and would probably generate a lot of cash this way.

After researching the issue, I found out that Google doesn’t allow to target visitors from Iran (as well as Cuba, North Korea, Sudan and Syria) because of – you guessed it – the economic sanctions imposed by the US government. Now, this is something that I entirely cannot understand: how exactly would Google AdSense strengthen the Iranian regime? The Iranian state media doesn’t need to use Google Ads to generate its revenue: they are lavishly funded by the state.

The only people who suffer because of these sanctions are the Iranian Web entrepreneurs who are cut off from a guaranteed source of funding. The appearance of Google Ads as a source of funding for small-scale Web ventures has been one of the key drivers of the Web2.0 era. In my professional experience in Eastern Europe, projects that were built with Google Ads and other business models in mind have usually fared much better than those that only relied on external non-profit funding.

In the current environment, the Iranians have no choice but to wind down their operations after they run out of money or accept grants from the US government or other agencies that would surely have a negative impact on their reputation in Iran and hurt their chances for becoming sustainable down the road. Factor in the impact of cyber-attacks – which are demanding more and more staff power as well as server space to deal with – and you begin to understand that it’s the Iranians who need Google’s ad money the most. From what I understand, today it’s next to impossible to be a popular Iranian social news site without hiring full-time maintenance staff. There is simply no way to pay their salaries without relying on online advertising: the market for pay-per-view models is limited, since many Iranians do not have credit cards and are not accustomed to paying for news online.

Instead, we are faced with yet another situation where a misguided sanctions policy of the US government makes it impossible for the Iranian dissident voices to flourish on the Web and create sustainable online ventures. What the US government should be doing is partnering with Google and doubling and tripling what Iranian web-sites could earn from displaying the ads. This would bring on a real "Twitter revolution"; the current US policy stifles it.

And there is no need to fear that the Basijis would usurp this space. There are plenty of extremists outside of Iran and Google has learnt how to identify and deal with them; why would they fail to reign the Basijis? If they create content which doesn’t fit Google’s policies, let Google deal with them instead of simply shutting the online advertising option to Iranians.

Leaving the misguided sanctions policy aside, I would still like to know if Google is interpreting the letter of the law with too much zeal. I know that they face restrictions in importing their software and secure email to Iran, but how does displaying online ads to Iranians fit into this? My understanding is that even sites based abroad cannot choose Iran as a target of their ad campaigns and I really fail to see how this squares with the US government sanctions. Given that Google has recently confirmed its commitment to defending "digital refugees" and other cyber-dissidents, it would be useful if it could clarify its actions. 

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